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10 Movies That Inspired Real-Life Crimes

Amanda Mannen

Violence in movies is a touchy subject, and debate rages over whether glamorizing the criminal lifestyle leads to similar behavior in viewers. It can’t be denied that sometimes iconic images stick with people who were already deranged. These people watched horrific crimes onscreen and said to themselves, “Hey, that’s a really good idea.”

10 The Town

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Ben Affleck’s Oscar-nominated crime drama The Town tells the story of a man caught up in both a gang of bank robbers and a romance with a witness to one of their robberies. It follows him as he tries to protect her and leave the life of crime behind. A bunch of people seemed to have missed all of that nuanced storytelling though, instead leaving with the impression, “Hey, all that robbery stuff was pretty neat, I should do that.”

The most prolific of the copycat criminals were a group of men in New York City, who committed a staggering 62 robberies involving $217,000 in stolen cash from various Brooklyn- and Queens-area businesses. The men used techniques portrayed in the film to pull off the scheme, such as cutting the power supply to the target so that employees couldn’t contact help, wearing miners’ headlamps to see in the dark, and applying a liberal dose of bleach to the scene to destroy DNA evidence. They must have been pretty surprised that all that work didn’t stop them from getting caught, and admitted to police that they were inspired by the film.

Two other crimes, one in Nebraska and one in Illinois, involved robbers donning disguises seen in the film—a group of men in skull-like masks and, hilariously, a woman in a nun costume, respectively.

9 Project X

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In the 2012 comedy film Project X, a group of nerdy teenagers throw a party at one of their houses while their parents are away. The party quickly grows out of control, resulting in a chaos of drugs, guns, and eventually setting the entire neighborhood on fire. Teenagers across the country responded, “Good idea!”

An epidemic of kids copying the movie is raging as hard as the party they seek to emulate. These aren’t normal teen parties—they often involve thousands of kids, who intend specifically to reenact the movie’s portrayal of drugs and violence. Incidents have been reported in places as diverse as Texas, Utah, and Florida, usually taking place in illegally entered abandoned buildings. Property damage has ensued in abundance, along with other catastrophes that would obviously be expected from such out-of-control gatherings but that no one seemed to consider. Several children have been wounded, sometimes fatally, by gunfire, and many more have been charged with possession of drugs and alcohol and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of vandalism. One incident in Texas ended with police rescuing a drunk, naked girl being transported by a car full of boys. The problem has gotten so bad that Warner Brothers issued a statement along the lines of “Guys. It’s a movie. Knock it off.

8 Scream

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Wes Craven’s 1996 film was a groundbreaking moment in horror movie history, a tongue-in-cheek parody of the genre’s tropes that still managed to be horrifying. It was also, according to an American judge, a “very good source to learn how to kill someone,” and it did indeed inspire a series of copycat murders. The most notorious was that of Belgian teen Alisson Cambier.

She had befriended 24-year-old Thierry Jaradin and was visiting him in his home one day when he propositioned her. After she refused, he excused himself to another room, where he donned the iconic Ghostface costume. He selected two large knives, which he used to stab Cambier 30 times in the manner of the victim in the film’s opening scene. After the deed was done, he made a few phone calls, confessed to the crime, and later admitted to police that he’d planned the incident modeled after the film. Authorities were baffled by Jaradin’s actions, given that he had no criminal record or history of mental illness, except apparently a habit of trying to pick up 15-year-old girls.

7 Fight Club

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David Fincher’s 1999 film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s gritty debut novel struck a chord with men who felt they’d been neutered by Western society. Fight Club’s world of underground bare-knuckle boxing matches and organized terrorism was terribly attractive, and it was only a matter of time before the fact that it was also terribly illegal was no longer any real concern.

The most serious crime committed was in New York City over Memorial Day weekend in 2009. Homemade bombs were set off in various locations around the city, including a Starbucks in the Upper East Side, apparently modeled after the film’s destruction of businesses they considered symbolic of their oppression. The bombings were eventually traced to Kyle Shaw, a member of a local “fight club,” after he bragged about it to his peers. Fight clubs, in fact, have popped up all over the world in the wake of the film, among populations as diverse as American software developers, Australian schoolboys, and British prisons.

6 Money Train

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The 1995 heist film included a scene in which a thief called the Torch robs a subway toll booth, then traps the clerk and sprays the booth with gasoline, setting it on fire. In the comedy, the clerk gets away, but the victims of the desperate viewers who took note of the technique weren’t so lucky.

In the first incident, a young man filled the coin chute of the booth with lighter fluid, threatening the clerk with fiery death if he didn’t give him the money. He lit the chute anyway, and the 50-year-old victim suffered burns over 75 percent of his body before he was rescued. He died in the hospital several weeks later. There were an incredible seven incidents over the following three weeks utilizing the same method, spurring an outraged campaign against violence in Hollywood.

5 Saw

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The Jigsaw Killer from the Saw franchise has all the makings of a psychopathic anti-hero. His traps are elaborate, ingenious, and gruesome; he only targets people who are hurting themselves; and his games are designed to teach them the value of life. Jigsaw never kills anyone, he contends—if they don’t have sufficient will to live, they kill themselves. It’s fitting, then, that the two Jigsaw-inspired crimes never actually hurt anyone—at least, not in the way they intended.

A Salt Lake City mother turned in her son and his friend after she overheard them plotting to kidnap, torture, and murder several people. The two boys, aged 14 and 15, had detailed plans to set up games in the Saw style to teach a lesson to people they claim were harming others, including a police officer (the occupation of many Jigsaw targets) and two middle-school girls. The boys even told police they had procured cameras and camcorders to document the murders, as Jigsaw did.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, two teenage girls found themselves in hot water after what they claimed was a prank gone wrong. A 52-year-old woman received a voicemail in the Saw style, stating that a friend had been hidden in her home, and the caller was about to release the toxic gas they had rigged inside. She had to decide whether to save herself or risk saving her friend. When she received the message, it came at the worst possible time—during a funeral procession. The woman was so terrified that she suffered a stroke. She recovered, but the girls were charged with phone harassment.

4 Backdraft

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The 1991 action film follows a group of Chicago firefighters as they race against the clock to catch a serial arsonist. You can probably see where this is headed.

Surprisingly, he just wanted to be a hero, said the man arrested for arson after watching Backdraft. He admired the firefighters in the movie, and he wanted to be like them, saving people from burning buildings. Unfortunately, he kinda missed the part about setting fires being bad. Since no one was kind enough to set one for him, he took matters into his own hands, lighting a chair in his girlfriend’s family’s apartment while they slept. The saddest part is, he didn’t even get to put the fire out. The family woke as smoke quickly filled the apartment and put out the fire themselves. The hapless boyfriend just got arrested.

3 Interview With The Vampire

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There don’t seem to be many crimes from the 1994 adaptation of the Anne Rice classic that mortals can reenact. Maybe someone threw some people down a well and lit them on fire? No. It’s much weirder than that.

Daniel Sterling and his girlfriend of eight years, Lisa Stellwagen, watched the movie together on November 17, 1994. That night, Lisa woke up at about 3:00 AM to find Daniel staring at her. He told her, “Tonight you’re going to die. I’m going to kill you and drink your blood.” At which point, she apparently rolled over and went back to sleep, possibly murmuring “That’s nice, dear,” because it wasn’t until later that day that Daniel stabbed her seven times and sucked the blood from her wounds. No word on why she didn’t run out of bed screaming immediately, like a normal person probably would have. Daniel was kind enough to make it clear that he didn’t blame the movie, although he admitted it did influence his plan. The jury didn’t buy it as a defense though, and convicted him of attempted first-degree murder, among several other charges.

2 First Blood

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The 1982 action film was a bleak portrayal of the damage the Vietnam War had inflicted upon young American men, personified by Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo. He is accosted by police, chased into the woods, and relentlessly pursued after accidentally killing an officer. Eventually he’s driven to gunning down huge swaths of town.

There were many police reports in the wake of the first film of young men attempting to imitate their hero, John Rambo, primarily in the Canadian wilderness. One man, dressed in army fatigues and a red headband, was shot to death in a standoff with police after killing an officer. Another, an 18-year-old man in the Toronto area, was found lurking in a swampy ravine wearing khakis and face paint and carrying a music stand. Yet another, also dressed in army clothes and a painted face, was pursued for two weeks in the Ontario woods while he launched rocks with a slingshot—just like Rambo . . . except that this guy was launching them at children. The film’s creators disowned any responsibility for the crimes, but while psychologists agreed that the movie wasn’t to blame, it certainly provided an ill-suited role model to these deranged men.

1 The Dark Knight

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Everyone knows about the tragedy in Colorado and the orange-haired man who cried “I am the Joker!” before shooting up a movie theater full of Batman fans last year, but he’s not the only Joker-inspired guy who wanted to watch the world burn.

In 2010, a Wisconsin man was sentenced to almost a year in jail after he broke into his cousin’s home and assaulted him while dressed as the Joker. The man had suspected his cousin of sleeping with his ex-girlfriend and attacked the two of them when he found them in bed together. It’s doubtful the Joker would approve, because while that’s a terrible motive, it makes entirely too much sense for an insane character like the Joker. A much more Joker-like incident occurred in 2009, when a teacher fended off an attack from an Indiana high school student. The girl came at the teacher with a razor blade, but not before she excused herself to the bathroom to apply Joker-style makeup and slice her cheeks into his trademark smile.

Manna writes and wrongs from sunny Portland, Oregon. Check out her writing at Cracked.com or follow her on Twitter.